I didn’t use to like Superman.
I thought he was boring. I didn’t like his “kitchen sink” powers. It always seemed to me like having every kind of superpower was somehow cheating. I didn’t like how much of a goody-two-shoes he was. I get that he’s an American icon and everything, I just never found him very interesting.
But I have a somewhat newfound respect for Superman.
I think it started with Superman Returns.
I know, I know, it isn’t cool on the interwebs to admit that you actually liked Superman Returns, but I did. I liked it a lot. It’s not perfect, of course. It’s overlong, the plot is a bit hokey, and Kate Bosworth admittedly may not have been the best choice for Lois Lane. But I still found a lot to like about the movie. I thought it managed to be a very human story. I rooted for Superman the whole way through. It helped that Bryan Singer is a good director, and he directed the film with what I thought was a very genuine appreciation and care for its many iconic characters. Kevin Spacey was also great as Lex Luthor.
Warner Bros. also does a really good series of DC comics animated films, many of which feature Batman and Superman.
Like this one. Seriously, check these out. They’re all really good. Great voice acting and animation, lots of action, and fun stories, many of which are directly based on specific, well-known stories from the comics.
So I’m actually a fan of Superman now. And 2013 brings us Man of Steel, a megabudget remake or reboot or re-imagining or whatever they’re calling it these days. The success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy helped convince Warner Bros. to greenlight a new Superman project, with Nolan overseeing the film (he produced it and has a story credit). Zack Snyder, best known for his other comic-book adaptations 300 and Watchmen, was chosen to direct the film from a screenplay by David S. Goyer, who co-wrote all three of Nolan’s Batman films.
Snyder is a somewhat polarizing director. Some people like him, some people hate him. His detractors argue that he’s all style over substance, preferring glossy visuals to telling a good story. I’m mostly a fan, since I liked 300 and Watchmen and his remake of the classic George Romero zombie flick Dawn of the Dead was also pretty solid, especially as far as horror remakes go. Though Snyder’s 2011 film Sucker Punch was really, really bad.
Ugh, so bad.
Anyway, Man of Steel caused something of a stir when it was announced that British actor Henry Cavill had been chosen to play the most American of superheroes (aside from Captain America, anyway). One review I read of the movie described Cavill as “blue of eye and square of jaw”, which, as you can see from the poster above, is an apt description both of Cavill and the Man of Steel himself.
Also he’s dating Gina Carano.
Snyder’s film also boasts an impressive cast, including Russell Crowe as Superman’s Kryptonian father Jor-El, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as his earth parents, Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White, and a perfectly-cast Amy Adams as Lois Lane.
The film is an origin story in the most literal sense, since it begins with nothing less than the birth of the Baby of Steel himself in the very first scene. There’s an extended prologue on Krypton, where we find out that Jor-El’s son is the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. They grow babies or something, which was a little weird but whatever. We also discover that Krypton’s core is shutting down, which will lead to the planet’s destruction. Jor-El and his wife send their son blasting off to Earth in the middle of a coup led by Michael Shannon’s thoroughly evil General Zod, who is none-too-pleased with recent events. I won’t go into much more detail here since you should really go see the movie.
But it was an effective prologue, both for setting up the rest of the story and as an introduction to the world of the film. It also gives us some cool glimpses of Krypton itself, including some various Avatar-esque winged creatures and flying spacecraft. Jor-El’s Kryptonian battle-armor is also extremely cool.
This prologue also demonstrates two things about director Zack Snyder. Say what you will about his abilities as a storyteller, the man 1) has a hell of an eye for eye-popping visuals and 2) knows how to film a damn fight scene. I’ll talk more about the action later on, but suffice to say that this movie has some of the best comic-book style epic smackdowns between superpowered beings that I have ever seen in a movie.
After the prologue, we skip ahead to Clark Kent as an adult, he’s a drifter, trying to find his place in the world while knowing how different he is from everyone else. The film shows us flashbacks of his childhood and his discovery of his abilities when he was just a young boy in school. To me, these scenes really emphasized just how much of an outsider Clark really is. He didn’t really have many friends in school, everyone thought he was weird. We all think it would be awesome to have superpowers, and in some ways I’m sure it would, but it never really occurs to us how hard it would be to discover you have these abilities as a child growing up.
I also liked how the filmmakers explained certain elements of Superman that I had always found puzzling. Such as, if Superman can hear everything at once, how does he not get completely overwhelmed by it? How does he even have superpowers in the first place?
The film explains these things in a way I really liked. It shows how his mother, played very touchingly by Diane Lane, helped him focus by just listening to the sound of her voice. It’s not a very specific explanation as to how he learns to focus and control his abilities, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a very human explanation, showing how Jonathan and Martha Kent’s love for him helped him focus and really discover who he was.
It humanized Superman a lot to me, which is something I had had trouble with regarding Superman in the past, that he was so godlike he was hard to care about because nothing could hurt him. Man of Steel makes him vulnerable. Some would argue that Superman shouldn’t be vulnerable, but I really liked this take on the material. There weren’t a whole lot of scenes showing young Clark with Ma and Pa Kent, but what scenes there were I found moving. Snyder also doesn’t let these scenes slow the film down, but to me they lasted as long as they needed to.
Eventually, Clark discovers his Kryptonian heritage and General Zod reappears with a suitably nefarious plan for world domination. I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, but I found it very satisfying.
Man of Steel is in many ways a different take on the Superman mythology. There’s no Kryptonite, no Lex Luthor (although the name Lexcorp does appear on the sides of a few semi-trucks), not much Daily Planet, and no nerdy Clark Kent glasses (not until the end, anyway). But the film still tells a complete story in a way that honors the legacy of its iconic protagonist and his equally iconic supporting characters.
The acting is solid throughout, and Amy Adams is particularly good as Lois Lane, making Lois tough and likable without being annoying or overbearing (“What can I say, I get writer’s block if I’m not wearing a flak jacket,” she tells one soldier). She’s also smart. I mean, sure, she requires rescuing a few times, but never due to her doing something stupid. I hate it when screenwriters make characters do something dumb just to create drama, it always feels forced.
David S. Goyer wisely avoids this. He also gives the traditional Clark/Lois relationship a twist by (spoiler alert) having her discover who he is fairly early on in the film, which provides a fresh spin on the relationship between them, and also cleverly eliminates the pesky “how does Lois not know Clark is Superman” question.
And the action. Boy howdy, the action. One valid criticism of Superman Returns is that it didn’t have Superman really fighting anybody, which is mostly true. There were some good sort of “save the city” action scenes, but there weren’t really any super-powered beatdowns.
Well have no fear action fans, because Man of Steel delivers on that front and then some. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered what it would really look like if two (or more) superpowered beings just threw down and beat the holy hell out of each other, look no further. The epic battles in Man of Steel could have been lifted directly from the pages of a comic book.
The best way I can think of to describe the fights is to liken them to this fight scene from the Superman/Batman animated movie I pictured above. So take a few minutes to watch Superman and Darkseid beat the living crap out of each other. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Done? Okay, now picture that sort of thing, but in LIVE ACTION with REAL people getting tossed through REAL buildings and REAL stuff exploding all over the damn place, and you’ll have at least an inkling of what the superbattles in Man of Steel are like. Needless to say, the film’s special effects and overall visual presentation are top-notch throughout.
I’ve heard people say the film is too dark for a Superman movie. I disagree. Sure, it may be dark for a Superman movie, but to me that doesn’t really mean the film is dark per se. does that make sense? I dunno, I just think people complaining that it’s too dark are just looking for something to complain about. It’s nowhere near as dark as Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, though the influence of Nolan’s films is pretty apparent (you could call Man of Steel “Superman Begins” if you really wanted to).
The film has done better with viewers than it has with critics. On Rotten Tomatoes it has a 56% approval rating (a “rotten” score despite being mostly positive) but if you peruse the user reviews on IMDb you will see a lot of ratings of 8/10, 9/10, and even 10/10.
In conclusion, see this damn movie. It’s another example of summer blockbuster escapism done right, and it and Star Trek Into Darkness are my two favorite films of the year so far.
“I grew up in Kansas, General,” Superman tells a skeptical army officer late in the film. “I’m as American as it gets.” You’ll be right there with him.
And you gotta love this retro poster.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.